I was reading about the Paris Commune of 1871 when I found references to a President MacMahon. That surname was screaming out at me, and I had to find out more. How did a statesman of patently Irish descent – and with a name like MacMahon – become President of the French Republic?
Patrice de MacMahon was born in Sully, Saône-et-Loire in 1803. His ancestors, however, were part of the Dál gCais and were Lords of Corcu Baiscind in Ireland. After losing much of their land in the Cromwellian confiscations of aristocratic wealth, a branch of this royalist family had fled and settled in France, applying for French citizenship in 1749. Fifty-four years later, France’s future President, wee Paddy MacMahon, was born.
During an impressive military career, MacMahon rose rapidly through the ranks. Beginning as a junior officer in the 1830s, he served with distinction in Algeria and in Crimea in the 1850s, by which time he was a Divisional General. He commanded the “Army of Italy” in the Second Italian War of Independence, achieving the rank of Maréchal de France before being named Duke of Magenta by Napoléon III. In the Franco-Prussian War, MacMahon commanded on the Army of the Rhine’s Southern line. Encircled at Sedan – in part due to MacMahon’s indecision – the French under Napoléon III surrendered, and MacMahon was taken prisoner.
After the French surrender to the Prussians in January 1871, a new interim government was formed in Versailles. Radicals in Paris rejected this government and formed the Paris Commune. In May 1871, MacMahon led the troops of the Versailles government against the Commune. In the bitter fighting of what was later called La Semaine Sanglante (“The Bloody Week”), the government forces under MacMahon crushed the Commune with many communards being executed. He was not blamed for the repression, but instead became the hero of the hour for the Right.
In May 1873, MacMahon was elected President by the National Assembly. Only one vote was cast against him. He assisted at the proceedings which, in 1875, led to the establishment of the Third Republic, but was nevertheless convinced that the triumph of Radicalism would be to the detriment of the nation. As such, he restrained the political advance of secular parties hostile to the Catholic Church, prosecuted newspapers, removed senior officials suspected of support for republicanism, and suppressed the pamphlets and meetings of critics of the regime.
After successive electoral victories for the Left in October 1877 and January 1879, he resigned. Patrice de MacMahon, Duke of Magenta and former President of the French Republic died in Loiret in 1893. He was buried with national honours in the crypt of Les Invalides.
How brilliant is that, a French President called MacMahon?